Philip Mcleod

The McLeod Report - London, Ontario

A regular commentary on civic affairs in London, Canada by journalist Philip McLeod.

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Hard to stop the light rail train

REPORT #1,131: It’s merely a placeholder, council was assured this week, that decision to make London’s rapid transit plan a hybrid system of light rail and fast buses. However, experience tells us, right or wrong, that decision will be a difficult one to stop now.

Friday, Nov. 13, 2015 – London Ontario

There’s so much that’s worrisome about the rapid transit decision city council made this week it’s difficult to know where to start. But for starters, let’s just consider what it was council said it decided Monday night.

Meeting as its strategic priorities and policy committee, council by a 15-0 vote affirmed the rapid transit solution for London would a hybrid system – half light rail and half fast buses. However, the unanimous decision belies what at least some councillors actually believe our city of 381,000 citizens needs.

They were swayed by what Mayor Matt Brown said, what people presenting the report said, which was that Monday’s decision wasn’t binding on them or anyone else. It was, we were told, a placeholder so to speak designed to convince other orders of government – i.e. in Toronto and Ottawa – that London is serious about stepping up into a rapid transit world.

 Today’s forecast price tag for a hybrid system is $900 million against a full system of fast buses of $525 million. Whatever the cost, London is committed to contributing only $125 million to its construction and has hopes the provincial and federal governments will pony up the rest. 

And so the plan to push the ‘ask’ as high as credulity will support. Or as Tanya Park, councillor for the downtown Ward 13, which will be one of the main beneficiaries of a faster public transportation system, put it: “You don’t get if you don’t ask.”

Council was assured, however, that should it turn out later there is less money than expected, or that construction costs are too high, or that operating costs are well above current estimates, or that estimates about intangible benefits prove ill-founded, or (perish the thought) public support dwindles, our hands are not tied. We can change our mind.

Or so they said.

The motion passed Monday night says this: “The civic administration be directed to utilize the hybrid network, which uses a combination of bus and light rail vehicles, as the preliminary preferred alternative and the basis for the next round of community engagement and public input for the rapid transit environmental assessment.”

Hmm, which is the operative word there – preliminary or preferred?

In other words, as city officials now ramp up to sell rapid transit to the people who will pay for it – out of one taxable pocket or the other – they will be offered only one solution. Oh yes, we have others but they are way back there in the warehouse and could take months to dig up. You want fries with that?

Anyone want to bet what the decision will be at the end of the environmental assessment process?

It’s a sneaky way for the proponents of light rail to get at least half of what they want – twin lines of steel they insist will raise London’s profile into world-class territory. And from here on in, the way the process is now set up, it will be difficult to stop the train.

Indeed, there are at least four members of council – Mo Salih (Ward 3), Jesse Helmer (Ward 4), Josh Morgan (Ward 7) and Stephen Turner (Ward 10) – who think London should go whole hog for a complete light rail system, price tag for which is about $1.2 billion based on current estimates. At the very least, according to a staff report presented to council this week, such a system would require a $1 million annual subsidy over what taxpayers currently provide London Transit.

Now a couple of things about whole hog.

The first is that among all public transit systems in Ontario cities London provides the lowest taxpayer subsidy. In other words, when it comes to supporting public transit London’s record is the worst. At that, we still have the most efficient system in the province.

As the need for public funding escalates with the rapid transit system – and it will grow incrementally more acute with light rail – is council prepared to step up with the cash or will the burden fall on riders?

The second is that the way the routing for the hybrid system is devised it’s hard to see where substantial passenger growth will occur, without which this huge expense is unjustified.

There will be two rapid transit routes – by rail between Masonville Place, Western University and Fanshawe College; by fast buses between White Oaks Mall and the Oxford-Wonderland area. The light rail route was chosen because that’s where 50 per cent of London Transit’s ridership currently resides – by virtue of discounted yearly passes students are required to purchase. 

As it begins, therefore, the light rail line will already have almost all its passengers, the same passengers London Transit already serves. Where is the gain? And since those 50 per cent of the passengers provide only 30 per cent of the revenue base, it’s not much a leap to suggest the LRT line will require a subsidy from the get-go.

London Transit first made the case for a bus rapid transit system (BRT) in 2008. If council hadn’t dithered those lines would be running now and we’d have a significant body of local experience. The case London Transit made was strictly about moving people around the city, and it was based on the knowledge the way its system currently is organized will soon self-destruct. 

Somewhere along the line what was a straight-forward transportation issue morphed into a city-building opportunity. Bad pun perhaps, but that’s where it started to come off the rails. More on this next week.

Comments   

# Where were you?Rob 2015-11-13 01:41
Shift London has taken the better part of a year to have open houses and seminars all over the city to show the various options for rapid transit. The have also had online and paper surveys. There has been lots of input and the results showed that Londoners want the hybrid system of LRT & BRT. Why is Phil McLeod at the 11th hour trying so hard to derail a LRT he will probably never ride? He clearly does not understand how the younger generation are making transportation and housing decisions now and in the future. Sorry Phil, but your a dying breed.
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# RE: Where were you?pizzacruise 2015-11-13 12:46
*you're
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# Ice Cream BarRob 2015-11-13 14:03
I know that one of the consultants J-Mac, said LRT will transform this city.
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# RE: Hard to stop the light rail trainBill Brock 2015-11-13 04:35
There seems to be some confusion. The reality of costs has just come out. The design by the City is political in nature to improve and protect the downtown. The Transit Commission was given the role of providing mass transit for citizens. There is a difference. The public meetings gave people the chance to indicate what would they would like. What the Council has done (within next 90 days) is to decide on their preference passing the buck to the Feds. and Province to cover 85% of the cost. At the meeting some Councillors talked about the error of putting tracks down and tunnels etc.. The UWO haven't even committed to a course of action; wouldn't it be frugal to wait and see what a negative impact on City choice will do to vision? Most of UWO and Fanshawe students live around or on campus! The City promotes strong communities and yet wants to gear everything to downtown. If a growth in the system is be effective and efficient for young or old this idea fails. Population of 500,000 people in 25 plus years will deem the Cadillac a failure.
Are 80% going to switch? Are you prepared to subsidise more and more. Deemed to failure; some one else pays OKAY - NOT.
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# Show Me the MoneyJMAC 2015-11-13 04:46
Lets get together in about a year on this.
Council will approve the project with one of the major reasons being that it is cool. If it goes south they can point to Ottawa and Queens Park as the villains.
This tactic of labeling anyone who raises tough questions about this plan as old fashioned is bullying Ask Art Zuidema what that means.
Oh and the twenty million dollar Dundas Street and the eight million Thames project and the Soho redevelopment are dangling in the cool ozone too.
It is great to be hip... and it gives you lots to yak about while not getting the basic job done.
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# induced demandJeremy 2015-11-13 07:30
Most cities that build comfortable reliable transit have increased demand. These lines will pass some of the largest employers in the city (London Life, Western, 3 hospitals etc). LTC could become more self sufficient rather than less.
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# RE: Hard to stop the light rail trainJ. David Scott 2015-11-13 07:59
This is stupidity on steroids. Any rational person will see the myriad of flaws in this proposal and will be left to simply scratch their head and wonder what was in the water at city hall on the occasion of this insanity even seeing the light of day. The elected clowns around the horseshoe on Dufferin are drinking the "London is a world-class city" Kool Aid. Bottom line... Our current and projected population can't, and won't support this nonsense.
For Christs' sake start dealing with our real, pressing needs and leave this pie-in-the-sky foolishness to sci-fi writers.
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# Stop RantingRob 2015-11-13 10:20
It's too bad that you didn't list even one of its so called flaws but rather chose to rant. Since you are so rational, maybe list its flaws so we can understand the issues.
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# Stop Drinking the Kool-Aid.J. David Scott 2015-11-13 14:26
Clearly you have a reading problem. I said that certainly one of the problems is the fact that our current and projected population...fo r at least the next 20 years... simply can't afford this nonsense. Next would be exactly where this would be built as existing infrastructure/ buildings won't allow much space (Richmond, Adelaide, etc,) Now exercise your brain and see if you might be able to find a few more on your own.
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# I love Kool-AidRob 2015-11-13 15:33
Regarding projected population - I really think that this is hard to predict. StatsCan did that projection when London was in it's worst state. Who could have predicted oil pricing falling and manufacturing to be increased in SWO? That is what has happened and the economy in London is growing. Also, Calgary and Edmonton built their systems when they were London's size. KW LRT is under construction and there are lots of LRT/Tram systems in cities London's size.

Regarding we can't afford this - transportation costs money, lots of money. Building and expanding roads and having endless sprawl costs a lot more than building transit and having a more compact urban form. Surely you don't think it's free to continue to build Hyde Parking Lot roads, do you?

Regarding whether we have the space to build this. I am guessing you haven't traveled much of the world where space is far, far tighter yet they easily accommodate systems like this? Trust me, London will easily fit this system compared to the cities in Asia and Europe that have less space to work with.
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# RE: Hard to stop the light rail trainTerence Johnson 2015-11-13 14:59
The important question to ask is why should London get a billion dollars? Interestingly enough, the Western Ontario Wardens' Caucus submission to Move Ontario is happy with London, as an economic, educational, healthcare, and public transportation hub for the region, getting the investment it needs to avoid gridlock. Of $5 billion that would be our region's fair share of the $15 billion for infrastructure promised by the province, it is only fair that some of it should be spent in London. Otherwise, businesses will take a hard look at comparable cities like Raleigh or Charlotte in North Carolina that are already a few years ahead of us in building rapid transit systems and integrated mobility hubs. Timing is everything when applying for this kind of senior government funding, so London has done the right thing with SHIFT to develop a plan with public input and get ahead of the game.
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# Retirednikker 2015-11-13 15:09
It absolutely defies logic and common sense to have the (eventual) Eastern terminal located at the airport. For years that turn-around point has been the Argyle Mall, the centre of a 27,000 people neighbourhood, right next to the coming community complex. Once again the needs of Central East London will be ignored, no surprise to anyone out here.
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# A FIRE SALECharmoose 2015-11-13 15:36
Within next 90 days, get your FedPro bucks before it's too late! 85% off LRT! This offer won't last! Had to laugh at the map showing the routes...LRT doesn't even make it to the airport. But what do I know, I'm just a lowly taxpayer. Maybe I'm missing out on the bargain of the century.
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# Stop the Train?Ed Stephens 2015-11-13 16:00
After a century of auto sector brainwashing it may come as a shock that rail is more advanced and efficient technology than cars and buses. The Greeks used asphalt to make roads before they discovered iron working, the Romans used cars pulled by horses, and buses are merely glorified stage coaches

Yes initial costs of LRT are higher, at least on paper. The US Government Accountability Office have noticed LRT has the least cost overruns and delays than BRT. Remember the F-35 scandal? The price looked great without the operating costs, same goes for BRT. With significantly higher operating costs BRT will cost London more in the long run.

The concerns I have with this plan is the hybrid system will push operating costs up, bus lanes will be taken over by HOV lanes, and the lack of wheel to go with the spokes. The route map looks like the ones Paris and Chicago are spending billions to connect around the edges.
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# RE: Hard to stop the light rail trainBill Namink 2015-11-13 16:42
After WWII, north America chose to retool the war effort and re-energize the industrial engine and make automobiles. We now have super highways over crowded and looking toward the future as to how best to move the masses. Europe and other countries first chose public transportation after WWII. Everyone needs to ask this question to themselves and answer it honestly. How do you see moving the masses in 20 or 30 years without investing in alternative transportation or is it just going to be one person to a car stuck in traffic and a heavier carbon foot print?
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# RE: Hard to stop the light rail trainBill Brock 2015-11-13 18:12
Can't stop Light Rail; Part 2.Bricks and rails won't work. TVO tonight "End of Line for Brampton's LRT". Last night on TVO (watch taping) Rahul Bhardwaj "Vital Signs" Light Rail is wrong? Also, Council is being irresponsible in asking commitment to their approach. Keep these references in mind and hope for an honest reality discussion! London Police need almost 2 million because radio technology only lasted 5 years was supposed to be 10 years. Southwest water treatment plant (50-80 million?) cancelled because of new technology earlier this year. Televisions could be obsolete in next 10 years. Traffic light coordination (forever). Professional engineers (2003) indicated malls wouldn't affect downtown; today experts indicate commercial isn't coming downtown turn it into a cultural and entertainment center. This while at least 2 more major malls are being built in southwest area and residential area with 2 car garages. Really! The discussion should not be limited to 5 minutes or to a vision it should be about how to use transit with more flexibility. Put your foot in concrete it is there forever!
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# High on rich diarrheaTucker 2015-11-13 20:09
City hall has proven to Londoners they have elected a mob, full of emptiness, controlled by higher ups, oops, just farted please, excuse me…….hard to be diplomatic when confronted with this quality of brainwash.
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# Edmonton and Calgary populationObserver 2015-11-14 20:13
Those of you saying these Alberta cities had light rail with only London's population are dead wrong. Look it up, both were half million population. London forecast is just that by 2035, and past forecasts have been consistently wrong. And you young ones are a smaller demographic than the boomers. Good luck generating the volumes needed to keep the subsidy manageable while Phil and I are in our nursing homes
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# Transport hubs create potential targetsLeila Paul 2015-11-17 19:55
Setting aside the issues of cost and efficiency of actually having a ridership justifying the expense. Further, setting aside the costs to roads that will carry large heavy transport units with built in metal rails and the costs of repairs to roads that would not occurs with multiple smaller vehicles. We need to realize the future is not necessarily a mirror of the past.

Large transportation units have two liabilities - one is the potential for airborne contaminants, including serious viral and bacterial ailments, which are becoming more common. They may even be engineered for such use.

Paris and all previous major terrorist targets should serve as a reminder that a lone, deranged maniac seeking notoriety may well copy-cat such events. Public transit with large numbers of target, as well as large performance venues, create ideal targets.

It is careless to assume the security we had in the past is forever assured simply because we wish it to be so. Fairy tales do not always come true, may never have been true.
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# Responsible cities must not act merely on feel-good emotionsLeila Paul 2015-11-17 20:13
Objections to carding because that implies prejudicial biases is one-sided. By eliminating carding we're judging that police are already biased and prejudicial in the choices they make to request I.D. and gather info from those who appear questionable.

Police are trained to go beyond gut instict and to engage in visible observation that might signal behaviours of individuals or groups that warrant information gathering.

It is police at the front lines and their lives at risk to defend us. Yet we already imply they're not to be trusted to be objective in defence of us and our city. It's contradictor to insist police cannot be proactive to create a database for public safety while we cheer a census that enables marketing.

With the rush to bring 25-THOUSAND purported refugees in less than six weeks, we are placing ourselves at risk. Even those who are not terrorists when they arrive can be recruited if they find the benefits they expected are not delivered.

Fulfilling pre-existing obligations is rational and humane.
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# Responsible cities must not act merely on feel-good emotionsLeila Paul 2015-11-17 20:13
Objections to carding because that implies prejudicial biases is one-sided. By eliminating carding we're judging that police are already biased and prejudicial in the choices they make to request I.D. and gather info from those who appear questionable.

Police are trained to go beyond gut instict and to engage in visible observation that might signal behaviours of individuals or groups that warrant information gathering.

It is police at the front lines and their lives at risk to defend us. Yet we already imply they're not to be trusted to be objective in defence of us and our city. It's contradictor to insist police cannot be proactive to create a database for public safety while we cheer a census that enables marketing.

With the rush to bring 25-THOUSAND purported refugees in less than six weeks, we are placing ourselves at risk. Even those who are not terrorists when they arrive can be recruited if they find the benefits they expected are not delivered.

Fulfilling pre-existing obligations is rational and humane.
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